Employers who are responsible for causing accident or injury to others could be liable for the costs of any NHS hospital treatment the injured person may need. Any such cost will normally be covered under the employer's compulsory employers liability insurance.

Legislation covering violence at work

The Health & Safety At Work Act 1974 places a legal duty on all employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This duty would include ensuring their employees are protected from violence at work. 

The Management of Health & Safety At Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to assess risks to their employees, decide what to do to prevent or control risks, provide clear management structures to achieve this and monitor and review their processes. There are also obligations to provide information and training to employees.

The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (Riddor) state that employers must report to their enforcing authorities cases in which employees have been off work for three days or more following an accident at work which resulted in death, major injury or incapacity for work. This includes incidents of violence.

The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 and the Health & Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 require employers to inform and consult with safety representatives and employees on safety matters such as violence at work.

Violence

Incidents of violence against workers are on the rise. Employees are increasingly subject to violent attacks by customers; for some it is a regular hazard. Another form of violence said to be increasing is 'work rage', which does not just result in acts of aggression towards colleagues and possibly members of the public, but can take the form of scratching on desks, writing graffiti on walls and planting computer viruses. Whatever form it takes, it is usually a sign of deeper organisational problems such as stress, overwork, a bullying culture, discriminatory attitudes or poor job insecurity. 

The consequences of violence in the workplace are easy to predict in terms of poor morale, high staff turnover and absenteeism, not to mention legal claims against the employer. Employers have a duty to safeguard employees at work as far as is practicable, carry out risk assessments and prevent and control risks as necessary. In most cases, violent behaviour will be defined as gross misconduct in the employer's disciplinary code, entitling the employer to dismiss the offender via the proper procedures.

An employer may consider that they are entitled to think that if an employee assaults a fellow worker or customer, this cannot be an act authorised by the employer. However, in determining whether an employer is vicariously liable, the courts will concentrate on how close the connection is between the nature of the employment and the employee's wrongdoing. An employer could be liable for an act of violence committed by an employee to settle a private score. If the perpetrator is an employee responsible for maintaining order in the workplace, then the employer may well also be vicariously liable for their actions. Employers should be aware that they might be liable for acts they consider totally outside their area of responsibility and control. 

Dealing with the problem 

The steps employers need to take to satisfy their legal obligations in relation to violence depend on the nature of their business. The Employment National Training Organisation has developed National Occupational Standards for dealing with violence which can be used to develop policy and practice as a basis for training and qualifications or for benchmarking purposes. 

A risk assessment should be carried out to find out whether you have a problem, whether action is needed, and if so, what. Other steps may include:

  • putting in place control measures, such as changing the physical environment or the job design to minimise risks;
  • improving security measures such as CCTV, coded locks or alarm systems;
  • cultivating an open and trusting culture;
  • adopting a code of practice on violent behaviour;
  • offering counselling and/or an employee assistance line;
  • providing training in the management of aggression and violence (the type of training would depend on the circumstances, such as whether the employee is an office or field worker and whether they have direct contact with the public);
  • learning from any incidents and debriefing the victims;
  • monitoring the measures in place to prevent violence to see if they are effective.

If, for instance, the violence is possibly stress-related, the employer will need to look for factors that may be contributing to stress, establish policies and procedures for handling these, consider an employee assistance programme or counselling service and monitor the process put in place.

Employers may find they have to adopt different policies to deal with violence between colleagues and violence involving members of the public, because the type of violence and triggers are likely to be different.

Victims of violence should keep a record of all events. Events should be recorded in written form as soon as possible after an episode. The record should then be handed to a line manager and a critical incident form should be completed. The police may need to be informed.